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Semillionards: Three Men and a Grape

August 26, 1993|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

SEATTLE — Of all the white wines I have in my cellar, Semillon ages best. Second in the race is Sauvignon Blanc, with Chardonnay a distant third.

I began to realize this about five years ago as I pulled out various Chardonnays that I had aged and found them relatively lifeless. Very few had taken on the complexity I associate with great aged white wine.

It was about then that I discovered Semillon, a white grape variety that makes a wine that tastes good young and also ages well.

This led to the formation of the Society of Semillonards, a limited membership organization (there are three of us) that meets regularly to pair seafood and Semillon and to revel in the joys of a grape variety that is appreciated by winemakers but fairly unknown to most American wine consumers.

The Society of Semillonards held its annual meeting this year in Seattle in conjunction with the World Vinifera Conference, a biennial gathering of wine industry leaders, devoted to a specific grape variety. This year's theme was Sauvignon Blanc and its frequent companion, Semillon.

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The Semillonards have no formal rules other than this: Society dinners must have only one wine type on the table and it must be Semillon. Because of the popularity of Chardonnay and red wines among wine lovers, there is no crowd of people clamoring to join the society. Indeed, when people hear about the society, they usually walk away shaking their heads.

Considering the tumult attending the more prestigious wine societies such as the Commanderie de Bordeaux and the Chaine des Rotisseurs, the meetings of the Semillonards are so little publicized that even Jeff Prather, wine steward at Ray's Boathouse here, was unaware that the Semillonards were dining at his restaurant.

He was only alerted when informed that the party at table 18 had ordered a second bottle of Semillon. That brought Prather running.

This year's Semillonard dinner had a special guest: Robin Day, president of Orlando-Wyndham Wine Group of Australia. Surprised that any Americans would like Semillon, Day wanted to view the proceedings. Australia may be the spot where Semillon is taken most seriously--and where the aging ability of these wines is best known.

Day's firm recently bought Wyndham Estate in the Hunter River Valley, which is highly regarded Down Under as a place to grow great, age-worthy Semillons.

Australians believe Semillon makes a dry white table wine with more charm and nuance than Chardonnay. It is best known for its ability to blend with Sauvignon Blanc, adding a figgy complexity to the herbal nuances found in the Sauvignon.

But on its own, Semillon can have the texture of Chardonnay, the aroma of pears and citrus, and a delicate taste that matches so well with seafood.

Also, Semillon does quite an amazing thing in the bottle. Over time, the fruity elements close down a bit and are replaced by a classic hay and honey complexity that works even better with food than do the younger versions.

We had no old Semillon for our dinner other than a still-maturing bottle of 1987 Simi Winery Semillon. Other Semillons served were from Clos du Val (1989), Chateau Ste. Michelle (1991) and Snoqualmie Vineyards (1992). Dinner concluded with a half-bottle of 1987 Chateau Rieussec, a Sauternes whose main grape variety is Semillon.

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More recently, I conducted an informal tasting of Semillons currently on the market. Most are from the 1991 and 1992 vintages, but don't fret if all you can find is Semillon from 1987 or even 1984. Old Semillons never die, they just help create silly societies devoted to them.

1. 1992 Hogue Cellars (Washington) ($8)--Spiced pear and apple scents, reminiscent of top-rate Riesling with complexity and richness. A load of flavor for the price. Even better than Hogue's excellent '90.

2. 1991 Alderbrook Vineyards (Sonoma) ($8)--Very fresh with hints of lime, slate, pear and mineral water. A superb wine with good potential to age. The best Alderbrook yet.

3. 1991 Chateau Ste. Michelle (Washington) ($7)--Fine spiced pear fruit and a figgy note are enhanced by a hay-like complexity. Excellent wine for seafood, another gem by winemaker Mike Januik.

4. 1991 Signorello Vineyards (Napa) ($12)--A weighty wine, built more like Chardonnay, with toasty oak in the aroma and sweet oak tastes. A "thick," powerful wine with excellent fruit in the finish. The antithesis of the first three wines, but a lovely effort. The best Signorello to date.

5. 1989 Clos du Val (Napa) ($9.50)--Hay, cream, figs and an elegant lanolin-like finish give this wine bonus points for texture. No longer as fresh as it was, but a grand experience for those familiar with the Clos du Val style. (A 1990, to be released in the fall, is more aromatic, but needs time to become this elegant.)

6. 1992 Arbor Crest Wine Cellars (Washington) ($6.25)--Grapefruit and spice, a bit of oak for depth and a lot of acidity to help it age or blend with shellfish. Good value.

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